Around my neck was my plastic AUC id, as it hung from the lanyard, I lifted it up to show the guard at the entry gate and he let me pass. My Molecular Cell Biology final would commence in T-minus 20 minutes and it would be the last of many exams taken over my first semester of medical school.
Four months ago, but an eternity in other ways, I walked in to the gross anatomy lab for the first time wearing my new blue scrubs and all my insecurities tucked near the surface of my wavering facade. There in front of me was a very sterile looking lab room and immediately I locked gaze with the large black bags atop ten tables. The smell was completely unfamiliar. I thought after spending hours in a surgery internship that the smell of human flesh would be nothing new. So I learned that living tissue is completely different. The preservation method to keep these bodies fresh required formaldehyde, and this was a new smell that burned my eyes and seared my nasal passages. After hundreds of hours, I never really got used to it.
Our class of 90 students was divided up into groups of six people per lab table. I was assigned to table 3. I wish I could describe how I felt as I stood next to the airplane bag (they called them) with my cadaver inside. Surreal. Our professors gave a brief dedication and we gave a moment of silence to recognize the lives of those who offered their bodies in the name of science and for the benefit of our learning.
Then we put on our latex gloves, opened our virgin scalpel kits, and unzipped the bags. Out of respect for our cadaver, a woman who our table nick-named “Gigi”, I won’t go into details. She was still young and her freckled arms looked alarmingly like mine. What a reminder of my own mortality. The cause of death was initially unknown and it became our challenge as we learn the anatomy of different body structures to find evidences of disease that would indicate pathology for their deaths. We found cancer inside Gigi’s body in several of her organs. This upset me. In retrospect my emotions seem ridiculous. She was dead. They teach us here that cancer is common, but it didn’t feel common when I was staring right at it, and at a human whose life it had claimed. I was thinking about my sister who died from this disease as I rubbed a small piece of it between my fingertips, and I was amazed at how small and innocuous it seemed. I wondered if she’d had chemotherapy or radiation, and if so, how long did they extend her life? How long did she battle? Casey asked me what it looked like and the closest thing I would liken it to was the very tops of cauliflower heads. I’ll never eat that vegetable the same way again.
Cancer, my lab partners and I concluded, is what took her life.
There were clues as to the causes of death in many of the other bodies, and as enthusiastic budding physicians we all wanted to share. From table to table we explored an enlarged heart, a brain with evidence of stroke, an enlarged prostate, and an aortic aneurism. At one point during our class when I asked my professor about hepatitis and diseased livers, he reminded me that we were in the gross anatomy lab to learn the foundation of anatomy, and that pathology would come later.
And learn we did. Gigi taught us about the bones of the body, the muscles that move them, the nerves that supply intelligence and impulse, and the vessels that once supplied her lifeblood. She showed me the organs of the human body and how ideally they work together to sustain life. But she taught me more than that. The most important lesson Gigi taught was gratitude. The last four months have been a challenge like I’ve never encountered before. Medical school is hard. I delivered three children, pushing until I thought I would die only to be told by my doctor to push harder. That, compared to this, was a blissful dream. Final exams this morning were my last push from first semester. Now, as I wait for the results, I remember Gigi’s ultimate and last sacrifice. I am alive while she is not, and in her death she taught me about life. Learning about life is an incredible challenge.
And for that challenge, I am grateful.